Mini Masterpieces – MARK ROTHKO

I have an idea to paint mini masterpieces for a while, and I’m starting with American artist Mark Rothko.

You know those tiny little canvas on easels you can buy in craft fairs? I got one for a present last Christmas and ever since then I’ve had the idea to paint little copies of my favourite paintings – or to even learn about new artists. I think I had a few art history classes in university or maybe even high school, but I can’t remember any of it – although I have always wanted to learn more. To learn about the different movements in art and what they were influenced by, to learn about my favourite artists and discover new artists, living or deceased.

So I’m taking this little canvas (and 11 of it’s friends) and once a month this year, I will be looking at an artist and then painting a miniature version of one of their pieces. To start with I choosing someone whose art can seem very simplistic on the surface – but when you look deeper – you’ll find many layers.

Mark Rothko

“To me art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”

I can’t remember when I first found Mark Rothko – but I’ve always been aware of his famous “block colour” paintings. They are the kind of thing you may look at and think: “Jeeze…a 3 year old can do that”, but then you look again and see layers and layers of colour that seem to glow from the canvas. I was super interested in finding out more about Rothko and discovered he had a really interesting artistic journey to arrive at these colourful paintings.

Rothko moved with his Family from Russia to the United states in 1931 and he refused to to be put into the box of any art movement, but he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist. His first paintings in the early 1920’s were influences by expressionism, and are very different from the boxes of colour he is most known for. These painting often depicted claustrophobic, urban scenes – such as the New York subway – and painted in bright acidic colours.

Rothko’s work moved to Surrealism in the 1940’s and his painting included abstract imagery of humans, plants and animal forms. At this time, Rothko was also interest in mythology and has been quoted saying:
“without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama”
 In the late 1940’s Rothko started reducing the forms in his painting to mere shapes and colours. These would be the seed to his later best-know works and were dubbed “multiforms” by the art world. I find it really interesting when looking at this time line – how his worked got more and more abstract as the years went on and by continually simplifying his work he developed his unique style.
“The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity.”
Hi multi-forms grew simpler, took up more space. The soft edged cubes of colours seem to float on the canvas. This is what Rothko was working towards and what he is best know form. These painting are know as “sectionals” and Rothko felt they better met his desire to create universal symbols of human yearning. His paintings were not self-expressions, he claimed, but statements about the condition of man. These painting may seem simple, but I think then are so beautiful. I don’t know if I’m intelligent enough to see the yearning if man in these shapes and colours, and I would probably cause Rothko to roll his eyes if he knew I just loved how the colours shone through.
 “If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point.”
I guess I’m missing the point, but at least I have a nice view while I miss it!
 In 1968 Rothlo suffered and aortic aneurysm and speant 3 weeks in the hospital. This brush with death followed him for the rest of hos life and the next series of painting was a departure from years on colours. These were 25 canvases titles “black on Grays” and would be the last thing he painted before he took his own life in 1970.
“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red.”

Miniature Masterpiece

Before I painted a teeny canvas with my feeble attempt at Rothko’s styles, I sketched a spread in my sketchbook. I really love how this little portrait of Rothko turned out. I also jotted down some keys dates in his art journey, a famous quote, and of course I had to sketch out some sectional examples.

I chose to use the Black on Grays as examples. As his last, slightly sad, paintings, these canvases still hold colour. At first glance they look like shades of grey, but if you look closer you can see greens and reads and creams peeking through. I wonder what he was thinking when he painted these, it looks like they were dark heavy thoughts.

My marker doodles don’t do them justice, but they were fun to draw!

Then I moved on to the canvas. I decided to paint this bright orange, red and yellow piece. I used gouache, in the hopes I could layer the paints the same way Rothko did. It didn’t really work though as gouache activated the layer beneath. I was able to use some scrubbing technique to get the lower layers to peek through.

This is a pretty poor attempt at copying a Rothko painting, but it was a fun little exercise. While this is a very simplified version of Rothko’s style, if you are interested in learning more about his painting techniques – check out this cool video I found on YouTube that explains how he painted.

And my process video is below 🙂